Even as the cross-border trucking program generates debate, government efforts to improve the overburdened transportation system are being hampered by the lack of a clearly defined vision and insufficient funding, a top U.S. official said.

The system will face increasing pressure from population growth, technology advancements and globalization, affecting the transport of goods and materials important to the retail and wholesale trades.

JayEtta Z. Hecker, director of physical infrastructure issues for the Government Accountability Office, testified before the Senate committee on environment and public works last month that surface transportation goals are unclear and the financing program is likely to face shortfalls in the near future.

“The growing demand has outpaced the capacity of the transportation system over the past several decades,” Hecker said. “The result is apparent: increasing number of hours spent inching along clogged roads and highways, especially at rush hours and other times of peak demand.”

When it comes to funding of transportation projects, the GAO said the government is failing to clearly identify whether a proposed project will serve the greater national interest or the local region in which the project is located.

“Federal transportation statutes and regulations establish multiple and sometimes conflicting goals and outcomes for federal programs,” Hecker said. “In addition, federal transportation funding is generally not linked to system performance or to the accomplishment of goals or outcomes.”

The GAO has recommended that the government develop parameters that help determine what projects would be considered matters of national interest versus those that are primarily local. As examples, Hecker cited reducing dependence on foreign oil and lessening environmental impact as clear national interests.

“Goals should be specific and outcome-based to ensure that resources are targeted to projects that further the national interest,” she testified.

The GAO is proposing that the government apply a more business-oriented operating structure that incorporates more accountability for results. Reducing congestion is another example of what could be deemed a national goal. A new system would hold state and local governments responsible for reducing travel times or meeting other performance targets that would directly determine the amount of federal funding they receive.

Funding is likely to be among the primary issues affecting the transportation system. The Highway Trust Fund was established in 1956 to generate money for the interstate highway system. However, revenues to support the fund, which come from taxes on fuel and trucks, are decreasing.

This story first appeared in the March 11, 2008 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Hecker said the federal motor fuel tax is 18.4 cents a gallon and has not been raised since 1993. “The purchasing power of fuel tax revenues has eroded,” she added.

The increase in the number of fuel-efficient or alternative-fuel vehicles projected to enter the market is expected to eat further into those tax revenues.